Think of the last time you heard someone shut their eyes, open their mouth and declare with a proficient flick of an open palm: ‘you win the argument if you know the facts.‘
My guess is that the person who spoke these words found it necessary to speak them because they were the sort to depend upon an abundance of information to gain-say the other into silence. Nothing wrong with that – but demonstrating a superior grasp of the facts is not ‘winning the argument,’ which is why she (it was a she, wasn’t it?), had to make the point so resolutely.
She was wrong. Or at least, not necessarily right.
A few years ago I lunched with the secretary to a European Commissar at a little Greek restaurant in the shadow of the Berlaymont (seat of the European Union’s civil service). Dr. Vilgariš* belongs to that cadre of astoundingly knowledgable European public servants who can paint my very frame of perception around the detailed masterpiece of their opinion. I sit back and enjoy the experience each time because, especially when they are discussing their own area of specialisation, I can’t possibly bring enough information to the table to counter their arguments – even if I find their conclusions abhorrent. The niggling problem, of course, is the constant knowledge that these people could never advance themselves through a system which depended upon discourse with their intellectual equals on ‘the other side’ (invariably my side). Thus – they work in the legislative body which is beyond the reach of and unaccountable to the people who pay their wages. When I asked Dr. Vilgariš what his British colleagues contribute to his department at the European Commission, he tactfully put it: “If the staff from mainland Europe have the knowledge, then I would say the British have the skills.”
Across the road, where I worked in the European Parliament, secretaries from various political party groups and across the continent often said how much they admired the British delegates for their fiery, if rather brutish, discourse. You could hear Bulgarian Communists talking, somewhat wistfully, about the British parliamentary tradition, saying things like: ‘of course, in Britain the leaders behave like animals, and the newspapers are not fit for toilet paper – but somehow they always manage to get to the point.’
Finally it dawned on me. A Hungarian Count who had sent his children to British boarding schools told me that his son was at the top of his history class in the Carpathians but had dropped to the bottom when he got to England. The Prussian system of education, which undoubtably produces the polymaths who run Europe (including Dr. Vilgariš), had apparently stuffed the boy with information but left him incapable of deploying it in the rational way which has been a focus of the British schooling system.
What is so satisfying about the British tradition of discourse is that, however little mutual information the parties depend upon, the discourse is grounded in egalitarian logic, so it is actually going to resolve a problem. Thus, geniuses can go head to head with morons, allowing their fragments of factual information to be subjected in equal measure to the natural law of logic like a giant card game in which both sides must withhold their own hands from one another while competing to order a shuffled deck on the table – calling each other out on their bullshit, jibing and laughing as they go along. Without this daggar-board to the discussion, the most fact-filled brains on the continent can argue at cross purposes for hours and never resolve anything, because they can’t quite decide what they are arguing about.
If you want an example of what I mean by this – watch this clip of BBC Question Time, in which Simon Schama – one of the most knowledgable historians on Earth – is hauled over the coals for his ‘appeal to emotion’ fallacy by the working-class son-of-a-train-driver journalist, Rod Liddle (not actually a moron).
BBC Question Time is wonderful precisely because if a truth is properly represented to the intelligentsia, it actually has a fair chance of winning over. And, his fragile ego thus exposed, you can see how riled Schama becomes. It’s the triumph of the little guy but, moreover, it’s the triumph of truth.
Alas, in the post-logical world of relativism and ego-centric ‘identity politics,’ the tradition of truth-checking is dying in Britain. If you have children now, you’d probably have to teach them these structural things at home, because no ego-centric believe-what-you-feel niceness-is-a-virtue school teacher really wants to allow pupils to reason their way to a position which might be considered ‘toxic’ or ‘problematic.’
Our Bulgarian Communist friends would be the first to admit it – information alone isn’t enough to break out of the totalitarian dolls’ house mentality of idealism. The presence of logic in discourse threatens to undermine the monopoly that information currently holds over our perception of the truth – a monopoly on which institution bound administrators and teachers tirelessly propagate in order to control their version of truth, upon which their job depends.
If you are a parent, it is now your duty to get your kids watching discourse between their favourite cartoon characters, movie stars and eventually leaders in Parliament, and noting down each time a logical error is made, for example, on this chart. Almost no institution-bound teacher will do this – because they would endanger their source of authority if they did.
Now consider this Facebook spat, following Hungary’s closure of the border to immigrants:
British boarding school wastrel who never went to university:
“If asylum is granted to those who simply appear at the border, our humanitarian policy is effectively outsourced to people-traffickers and favours the fit and able over the weak and vulnerable. Bravo Hungary!”
EU Civil Servant graduate from ENA (or somewhere like that):
“It is sad, that Christians today have so much fear of the other, that they can’t even help the vulnerable and persecuted any more, when they have another religion. For me, this is not the message of what we believe.”
Yup – I think I agree with her – but did you see what just happened there? In Europe civil-service world – and relativist rationalisation world in general, this kind of co-optive proclamation designed to reframe an argument as a ‘Christian issue’ is actually considered to be an argument (especially when backed up with a flash-mob of publicly subsidised student-union activists bussed in from Antwerp and a carefully selected detailed historical narrative**). In logic-world, however, you can’t shift the argument by shifting the frame of context. However loud you shout about something else, if asylum is granted to those who simply appear at the border, our humanitarian policy is still effectively outsourced to people-traffickers and favours the fit and able over the weak and vulnerable. I have never heard anyone produce an argument to suggest that this is not true (maybe it’s not; maybe the statement is wrong), but I’ve heard dozens and dozens of the most intelligent people on the continent trying to distract from this point by saying ‘we shouldn’t talk about that’ or ‘we should be more caring’ or ‘we can take more immigrants’ etc etc.
Unless you like digging through dusty archives of PhD theses or are lucky enough to count the intelligentsia among your friends, the expensive education of Europe’s government class is wasted. They sit in their ivory towers, unchallanged by their intellectual peers, even telling themselves they are above the quarrels of politics while feeding their own ideas back to each other as they drift not only from reality but from the will of the population over which they rule. A huge intelligence is being squandered in an effort to make people feel good – and people wonder how a chalk-striped public-school waster like Nigel Farage can end up disrupting their programme.
The fact that the European Commission work in secret is a very good indication that they know this. As they get worse and worse at discourse – they’ll need to take more and more protective measures to shield themselves from reality.
For your entertainment: this is South Park’s take on what happens to people when they select only information to support their pre-determined conclusions about what should be, rather than subject themselves to the criticism of their peers.
This happens to governments too, and they always end up getting tetchy when subjected to criticism – because when you create the information bubble, any attack on it is personal.
* All identities obscured – author takes as examples only those considered dear friends.
**Although the European institutions frequently do direct public funding into the same lobby groups which petition them, in this particular case, no publicly subsidised flash-mob of student activists from Antwerp were actually involved.